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Tigers get set for first-round matchup with stingy Rebels

Battle in the central division
Medicine Hat Tigers forwards Andrew Basha and Gavin McKenna celebrate a tying goal in the third period of a 5-4 overtime win over the Red Deer Rebels at Co-op Place on Feb. 10. (Photo by James Tubb/ Medicine Hat News)

The world around us is characterized by opposite, a belief that runs through Ancient Greek philosophy.

Hot and cold, dry and wet, odd and even, right and left. Starting Friday night, two opposite teams the Medicine Hat Tigers and Red Deer Rebels square off in a battle of two teams vying for the same championship goal in two different fashions.

The Tigers enter their first-round matchup against the Rebels with a high-flying offence that finished sixth in the league for goals for (280), scoring 63 more goals than Red Deer and had the third-best power play percentage (28.7 per cent), 8.2 per cent higher than the Rebels.

Red Deer, as they perennially have been, is one of the best defensive teams in the league. They surrendered the sixth-fewest goals (217), 14 fewer than Medicine Hat, and have the fifth-best penalty kill percentage (80.6 per cent). The Tigers were .1 per cent better on the kill.

Medicine Hat won the season series 4-2, with two of the wins coming in overtime. The two clubs have faced off in the playoffs six times, with Medicine Hat winning five of the series, most recently defeating Red Deer 4-1 in the 2015 first round.

“It’s going to be a good series, it’s going to be hard,” associate coach Joe Frazer said. “We know they’re going to come and play physical and mean, they’re really hard in front of their net and they’re going to crash our net hard offensively. We have to make sure we’re boxing out quick and being heavy in front of our net and we gotta pay the price offensively getting to their net.

“If you look back at all the games this season against them, they’re all one or two-goal games against like they’re tight, tight checking. We’re going to have to be patient and stick to our game plan for the full 60 minutes.”

Six Tigers earned more than 50 points and seven scored more than 20 goals, compared to Red Deer’s one and three respectively. Both teams won 21 of their 34 home games, but it’s the Tigers who have the road advantage, winning 16 away games to Red Deer’s 12.

“There’s obviously a lot of excitement (in the city),” defenceman Josh Van Mulligen said. “We’ve had some really incredible crowds lately and we’re just looking to build off that and get energy from the city, hopefully, it keeps on getting more packed.”

There’s one category where the Rebels do hold a decided edge. Since the 2021-22 WHL season, the first since COVID-19 shutdowns, the Rebels have played in 22 playoff games and won two first-round series–both in five games or less.

Medicine Hat was swept by the former Winnipeg Ice in the 2022-23 playoffs. Red Deer has been through the playoff grind and they bring that kind of game into the regular season. It’s a style of game Frazer says they’ll have to weather.

“They play playoff hockey, that’s their style, that’s their brand,” Frazer said. “Heavy, their physical, anytime you play them in the regular season it’s a playoff-style game and we expect that to be even more ramped up. Every time we’ve played them in playoffs that I’ve been a part of, it’s always been hard. It’s physical, and they come right at you.”

Neither team enters the playoffs playing their hottest hockey, with the Tigers 4-5-1 in their last 10 games and the Rebels 3-6-1, which includes five straight losses in their last five games.

Both teams have been hit with injuries throughout the season, Medicine Hat enters the playoffs with four full-time forwards with injury statuses in Cayden Lindstrom, Shane Smith, Marcus Pacheco, and Vasyl Spilka. The Rebels are hoping to get Matteo Fabrizi and Frantisek Formanek back come the postseason.

“We’re hoping we can get guys back,” head coach Willie Desjardins said. “We might have had guys who could have played if it had been playoffs last weekend, we might have got guys back but that extra week off certainly has helped us.”

With the Rebels’ extra playoff experience and their physical style of hockey, the Tigers aren’t overlooking how their opponents will look to get the edge in the series. Leading scorer Gavin McKenna, who tallied 34 goals and 97 points in 61 games, expects a long series and says they’ll have to take the Rebels style and use it against them.

“They are a good heavy team, they’re going to try to wear us down,” McKenna said. “We can take a note out of their own books and do the same and get on their defence. It’s a long series, we will have to just play with structure and win the blues. We’re prepared for it with our conditioning.”

Red Deer captain Kai Uchacz, who led them in scoring with 42 goals and 81 points in 68 games, told Red Deer reporters in a video posted on the Rebels website, that they’re focused on their own game rather than trying to stop the Tigers.

“A big chunk of it is about what we do,” Uchacz said. “The style of game we play and how we prepare and get ready for Game 1 and the whole series. We know what kind of team they are and we obviously know what our identity is and what we bring. I think for us, just being able to play our game, play in our structure, and play to the Rebels identity will be huge in the playoffs.”

James Tubb is the Sports Reporter for The Medicine Hat News.